The Instrumental

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It would be an easy record to put on in the background, this largely instrumental collection. Mirror of Wind, the new album from Jasper Lee, is full of sounds that feel ornamental, decorative: flutes flutter, strings swoop, mallets meander up and down scales. It is a kaleidoscope, its colours rotating, beautiful and meaningless. Listening to it, it very much strikes me as as fundamentally ‘instrumental’ music, in that it delights in the sounds of instruments, in the process of using different tools and gizmos and thingamabobs to make noises. Lee even builds his own instruments: his pyraharp looks like an upside down end table.

There is also something in the tone and structure of these pieces that reminds me of a mid-album instrumental in a song cycle. The tracks are generally song-length, and have an incidental feel to them, as though transitioning between more fixed points like verses and choruses, vocals and lyrics, things which act as pins in the fabric of songs. Only here there are no pins, just transitions and flutter. In such a landscape, the two tracks that do have vocals – ‘Quaint Gothic Spring’ and ‘Milk of Air’ – become bridges themselves, vocal interludes among the instrumentals, an inverse of the traditional order.

I keep thinking about this word, ‘instrumental’, and what it means. In reference to music, it is most often used to contrast a particular passage or piece with the vocally-led songs surrounding it. I’m thinking of tracks like ‘Green Arrow’ off of Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, or ‘Alma’ off of Grizzly Bear’s Shields, which would be described as ‘instrumentals’ between songs. The ‘instrumental’, then, is a bridge, a path, a transition. It takes its meaning from the things (words, songs) that surround it. There is little need to describe the music of Chopin or Duke Ellington or Toumani Diabate as ‘instrumental’, for there is no contrast to be drawn.

Yet it is also a word used to describe music which sounds like it could have vocals, but doesn’t: the post-rock of Mogwai and Do Make Say Think, for example, or the circling acoustic guitar workouts of James Blackshaw and William Tyler. Notably, these are all artists who occasionally deploy vocals, but generally speaking don’t. They invert the usual ratio of vocal tracks to instrumentals, and in doing so, challenge the association of ‘instrumental’ with ‘interlude’. For there is nothing transitory about the tracks without vocals here: rather, they are the main event.

What interests me in Jasper Lee’s music is that, while almost all of the tracks are instrumental, they have an interlude-like quality that is still very much present. Mirror of Wind is like a whole album full of interludes. It feels almost entirely incidental, oddly light and buoyant. It relocates the meaning of the instrumental interlude to within the interlude itself, rather than in the pieces it transitions to and from.

 

Any binary we might draw between instrumentals and non-instrumentals is complicated by apparently instrumental music which heavily incorporates vocals. A recent example is Arca, an artist who makes predominantly instrumental music, but who on his new self-titled record brings his voice front and centre. Arca, the record, is dominated by the presence of Ghersi’s voice, which is by turns frail and bruised and confident. Yet though the emphasis is on singing rather than beats, as in his previous work, it still feels like an instrumental album. Part of this, I recognise, is my own inability to understand Spanish, and thus my treating the vocals as merely another sound in the music’s fabric. This is an important point to note – the degree to which music is instrumental is partially determined by the position of the listener. Indeed, context is everything here – the same album might be ‘instrumental’ if I put it on in the background and ‘non-instrumental’ if I listen to it closely.

And yet, I don’t think it is unfair to say that Arca’s voice is a material in Arca in the way that beats were a material in Mutant – that is, something to be mutilated. The voice is an instrument of both sonic and emotional exploration. The hallmark of Arca’s music is its bodiless – his mangled electronics have always evoked bruised and damaged bodies. That is refined here by focussing on one part of the body in particular: the throat, itself an instrument. And the manipulations are mostly done not with electronics, but in the way Ghersi stretches and warps his syllables as he sings. One thinks of Bjork (something of a mentor for Arca) and her all-vocal album Medulla. Indeed, while ‘a cappella’ music is surely, by definition, the conceptual opposite of ‘instrumental’ music, the affect of the two on the listener is oddly similar. The non-instrumental ‘song’ is perhaps a product of the interaction between ‘vocals’ and ‘instruments’, as two separate but equally present components. To remove one entirely, or to mesh the two, as Arca does, until they are indistinguishable, is to make the music ‘instrumental’.

 

The music of Forest Swords, whose new album Compassion was released this month, is also, like Arca, full of margins being blurred: the ancient past with the present, the organic with the synthetic, and the vocal with the instrumental. Clipped vowel sounds drift through this music, as fungal spores spread a species through a woodland. The spread of ideas. Blood filling a mouth. It is a fox, feasting on the carcass of a rabbit. The other day I had to brake hard when a fox – an urban fox – appeared suddenly, its quick, slinking body inches from my front left tire.

Is this instrumental? Am I writing instrumentally now?

The record Compassion is not a record of compassion, but an instrument of it, that is, something that enables or allows for it, that becomes instrumental in the delivery of it. (At least, one senses that this is the hope – why else would you call your record Compassion?) Confusingly, the word ‘instrumental’ is also sometimes used in a sense akin to ‘indispensable’ or ‘necessary’, but that is not how I mean it here. These sounds are obviously not prerequisites for compassion: rather, they are offered as potential tools for it. But the question remains of how they might act as such – how could a few instrumentals become instrumental in the delivery of actual, real world good? These are not protest songs, optimistically strummed and sung. They are just patches of smeared, ‘raw language’. Untranslatable, how could they ever translate into action?

And yet, of course, they can, and do. Music has a profound, mysterious effect on us. It is our universal language. Ideas conveyed purely through the form of instrumentals are often more powerful than the songs around them. They are pure expression. Among songs sung in the baggy clothes of words that never quite fit, instrumentals are naked, with all the attendant associations of nakedness: purity, rawness, sexuality, vulnerability. The music touches us: it puts its instruments inside our naked bodies. It is surgery. It cuts and shapes us. Compassion is a heart transplant.

There is a contradiction, then, between the instrumental as incidental and the instrumental as incendiary; between the instrumental as wallpaper and the instrumental as contact paper. It is somehow both more distant from us and more close to us than the sung song. I am still unable to reconcile this contradiction in my mind, and perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it is the tension rising from it than is generative of interesting instrumental music.

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One thought on “The Instrumental

  1. Interesting; the only vaguely informed comment I can make is that in the 1970s “instrumental” in terms of pop/rock music merely meant music without lyrics, usually a single track. I guess things are more complicated nowadays.

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